Counterbalance: Soundgarden’s ‘Superunknown’

In my eyes, indisposed, in disguise as no one knows hides the face of this week's Counterbalance. 281st most acclaimed album of all time, won't you come and wash away the rain?

Mendelsohn: I didn’t even want to talk about this album. I just wanted to make you listen to Soundgarden for a week. Mission accomplished.

Klinger: Well played, sir.

Mendelsohn: But, while were here, and since I imagine you listened to this record at least once, we might as well have a little back-and-forth. Because, honestly, what else are we going to do? In my head, I can already here you grumbling about no nostalgia for the 1990s, no affinity for alternative music, wading through your Gen-X miasma, etc. I almost feel bad for making you listen to Soundgarden’s Superunknown. Almost.

This album was a favorite of mine when I was a teenager. But, like a lot of albums from my youth, I am routinely disappointed when I revisit the material. Superunknown was no exception. I have no illusions about this album’s failings. It suffers from the same problems that plagued many early ’90s records — namely it is overly long and overly loud. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t great material on the record. And I’m not just talking about “Black Hole Sun”. But maybe you disagree.

Klinger: I cannot disagree with you, but the joke is ultimately on you because I am almost completely incapable of paying any sort of attention to this album. The combination of Chris Cornell’s baritone burbling with that wooly blanket of Kim Thayil guitars seems to automatically send me into an altered state where I’m making grocery lists in my head. Yes it has its moments: “Black Hole Sun” almost singlehandedly justifies Superunknown‘s standing on the Great List (No. 281), and there are groovy little moments like the chorus of “My Wave”, but by and large this album is (to my ears) a mishmash of mosh mush.

And for the record, I was thrilled about the arrival of “alternative” music in the early ’90s. It’s just that I had hoped that it would do more to puncture the self-seriousness of mainstream rock. I hesitate to even use the word “grunge” here, because if I’m remembering correctly no decent band ever called themselves grunge (I could be wrong—not to sound like a stereotype, but I was depressed and slept a lot during the ’90s). And anyway all we are ever really talking about here was regular old hard rock, with way less sex and a disappointing tendency to take itself far too seriously.

Mendelsohn: I’m not even sure what you are complaining about, but lets take a crack at it. Self-serious? Sure, this record has it’s moments. Retread of regular old hard rock? Yup. Soundgarden did it in spades. Not sexy? Winner winner chicken dinner. There is little sex appeal to Superunknown. But while Chris Cornell was no Mick Jagger, he may have been a second-rate Lennon/McCartney. All I’m going to ask you to do is consider this: Soundgarden did a better job of updating the Beatles sound than any other band of the era. Including Oasis (who just stole it wholesale — and did it poorly, I might add).

Yes, I know, you are incredulous. Hear me out. Behind the blanket of guitars, under the layers of reverb and feedback are some great pop tunes — songs that may have been better understood in the hands of groups like the Beatles or the Zombies. Take “Black Hole Sun”, “Head Down”, “Superunknown”, “Spoonman”, “Half”, “The Day I Tried To Live”, and strip out the thrash, and remove the feedback and amped-up volume. These are well-crafted songs, Klinger, songs molded in the shadows of 1960s rock and psychedelica.

Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m putting Soundgarden on the same level as the Beatles (or even the Zombies) — I’m not, that’s just stupid. All I’m saying is maybe Soundgarden’s Superunknown was recorded in the wrong time and place. The fact that they had to make this record in the early 1990s, while incorporating the nom de rigueur guitar sounds and over-loud production values that were so ubiquitous, and were still able to make it work, make people sit up and take notice, says a little something about the talent behind this record.

Klinger: I knew if I sounded insufficiently effusive about Superunknown I could get you to leap to its defense. We are inevitably drawn to the music of our youth, whether the cause is neurological or social in nature (there are now even studies to back that up). And yes, oddly enough, “Half” was one of the songs that made me start paying attention during my listenings, mainly because it’s so different from its surroundings (although at about two-and-a-half minutes it could be construed as the Superunknown equivalent of “Wild Honey Pie”). I also perked up during the spitfire “Kickstand”, which went away after just 90 seconds. Which only reminded me that ‘70s/early ’80s underground music was generally pushing back against magnum opuses that lingered past the three-minute mark.

Mendelsohn: You aren’t wrong. Songs like “Head Down”, “My Wave”, and “Superunknown” all could have benefitted from being three minutes shorter. But that is something I only realize now, having the benefit of hindsight and four years spent digging through the Great List. Like a lot of music from my youth, there comes a point where I am ultimately disappointed by what I’m hearing. For every great song like “Black Hole Sun” or “Kickstand” there is the equally as bad “Mailman” or “4th of July”. But then, that might just be the dichotomy of the folly of youth and the wisdom of age, the need to emulate the past while still blaze a new path. I think Soundgarden did well for themselves in that respect and they are deserving of their spot on the Great List at No. 281.

Klinger: Interesting that you’ve oscillated between being disappointed by Soundgarden and actively defending them. I feel like we had a similar back-and-forth when we were talking about Rush a few weeks ago (which in turn called to mind my feelings about the Who from back in the olden days). We can never fully distance ourselves from the music that shaped us during our formative years. There’s a lot to be said there, and I think we’ll be addressing it a lot as we continue with this Counterbalance experiment.

It’s also interesting that you brought up Oasis earlier, because I started thinking about Soundgarden and the entire Seattle scene as something of a US-based analog to the 1990s British pop boom. Remember that period a couple years ago where we ended up covering the Stone Roses, Primal Scream, and Oasis all in the space of about a month? We kept coming back to the idea that the critical establishment was now changing the guard over to Gen-Xers, and this was their opportunity to champion the music that shaped them. Now I suppose we’re changing out “Lollapalooza” for “Knebworth” or whatever to gain a more Yank-based perspective.

Mendelsohn: Every generation will have its own bands, and it’s not all that surprising that the British Invasion of the 1990s would have an American analog. After all, the critical industrial complex has a very narrow focus. The Brits offered up the Stone Roses, Primal Scream, Blur, and Oasis. The Yanks countered with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Pavement, and Soundgarden. Or vice versa. That is the story of the early ’90s rock, a story that Soundgarden found a part to play in after toiling away in the Seattle underground for nearly a decade.

Klinger: And that’s significant too — it gets to my point about the extent to which groups really ever aligned themselves to some external construct like “grunge”. As in any scene, you have groups feeding off of one another’s energy and sound, but it might be that it’s the external forces (critics, the industry, fans) who are eager to create a differentiating name and brand for the sound that emerges. Nirvana bristled at it, Pearl Jam shook it off simply by continuing to exist, and Soundgarden more or less imploded before they could transcend it. It’s interesting to see how they’ve managed to sustain their legacy amid shifting tastes, but that’s probably down to the fact that they made a statement as grandiose as Superunknown. While I’m not necessarily a fan, I’ll be interested to see how the story of this album continues to unfold as it goes beyond its attendant 20th anniversary hoopla.

Mendelsohn: For better or worse, Soundgarden will always be linked to the grunge movement, whether is was for the success they experienced with Superunknown, or the part they played in helping to create Sub Pop, the label that pushed the Seattle sound to the masses, or simply by virtue of being a Seattle-based band. But there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, especially when you consider the strength of this record. As it is, Soundgarden is riding high on the nostalgia wave at the moment, thanks to reissues and a tour with fellow 1990s rockers Nine Inch Nails, and as long as there are Gen Xers who remember them fondly enough to listen and shell out for reunion tours, Soundgarden won’t be going anywhere soon.